A new early-warning system in the Gulf for harmful algal blooms (HABs), also known as red tides, using satellite imagery, remote sensing, and modeling could be one result of a conference on HABs held on 16‑17 April 2014 by the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC).

The project, which MEDRC says will be funded “soon” by the US Agency for International Development, will involve US scientists as well as others from Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It will use several desalination plants in Oman and one in Fujairah, UAE, to demonstrate the feasibility and value of the technology, which is based on HAB detection and forecasting techniques now used operationally in the US.

Algal blooms are accumulations of microscopic plants that live in the ocean or fresh waters. While they are mostly harmless, some species can cause harm in a variety of ways, ranging from the production of potent toxins that poison humans and marine animals, to large biomass accumulations that can alter ecosystems or even disrupt desalination plant operations.

Twenty-two partner organizations supported last week’s international conference
 on The Impact of Red Tides & HABs on Desalination Plants, which had 130 participants from 18 countries. Major cosponsors were Oman’s Public Authority of Electricity & Water, and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission through its Intergovernmental Panel on Harmful Algal Booms.

At the meeting, case-studies were presented by a range of desalination facilities describing the struggles they had with different HAB events over the past few years. These experiences demonstrated the serious impacts that occurred, including the shutdown of numerous plants, some for months at a time during prolonged HABs.

MEDRC says that one clear message from the meeting was the urgent need for early warning and forecasting systems that can help desalination plants, as well as fish farms, tourist centers and other sensitive resources to anticipate HABs. 

Another outcome of the meeting was the recognition that HAB problems are more than just concerns about toxins and high biomass accumulation of cells.

Several participants reported impacts from invisible components of the blooms – dissolved materials that can coat surfaces within desalination plants and affect the performance of reverse osmosis membranes. Engineers and others from the industry presented their experience with pretreatment technologies that can remove HAB cells and their products from the feed water.

“The attendance was good – around half engineers and half biologists,” participant Neil Palmer of the National Centre for Excellence in Desalination Australia told D&WR. “There was a good number of invited papers and the entire event included a balance of engineering and biology which I think is unusual. Both sides learned from the other.”